THE AVENUE DECEMBER 16, 2011
In his column, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” Forbes writer Gene Marks notes the advantages conferred upon him and his children by being white and financially secure. He asserts that black kids in poor urban neighborhoods with struggling schools have a harder situation, but that with hard work and perseverance, they can successfully graduate high school, go to college, and get a good job.
Essentially, he’s calling for kids in tough situations to be resilient, or, in other words, to do better than expected in adverse circumstances. Resiliency is a valuable psychological trait, and there’s a fair amount of research on it and ideas to promote it. Everyone needs it, even affluent white people, because life isn’t fair and bad things happen to good people. But it’s nowhere near an adequate response to the problem of poverty and economic inequality. It ignores a major part of the equation.
Individual behavior happens in specific environmental contexts. Marks’ poor black kid has to marshal extraordinary levels of resilience in order to compensate for struggling schools and the effects of poverty.
So why is Marks so blithe about struggling schools and poverty?
He appears to be using the poor black kid as a symbol in a larger argument that the American Dream is alive and well. Marks opens and closes his column with references to President Obama’s recent speech on inequality (which he calls “excellent”), and he also highlights the 99 percenters. Nonetheless, he is saying, there are ways out of poverty and into the gentry. And he’s correct, in a narrow sense. But let’s stick with the poor black kid and Marks’ prescription for how he or she should navigate the minefield of a troubled educational system.
Education can be a powerful springboard for mobility, but it can also perpetuate economic and racial inequality. If we are going to urge the poor black kid to beat the odds, why do we tolerate the system that generates such steep odds in the first place?
Improving schools is a massive, messy, complicated initiative and it is inherently political. We have major disagreements about major issues: the role of poverty and economic distress in inhibiting academic achievement and whether/how to address such out-of-school factors; the value of standardized testing; how to encourage and reward teachers; the role of career and technical education; and the utility of a “college for all” approach. These are choppy, sometimes treacherous waters, and the only easy answers are platitudes.
But it is simply inaccurate to say, as Marks did, that the biggest challenge we face is “ignorance”--that the poor black kid doesn’t know about the opportunities that exist, such as scholarships, mentoring, and technological tools for researching and studying.
That is narrow and incomplete. His solution of personal pluck and perseverance is a similarly narrow and incomplete response to the problem he correctly identified: that income, race and family factors all-too-often limit an individual’s opportunities.
The truer, messier, harder answer is that we need to act on multiple fronts: Do more to help individual kids in tough situations find their way and develop stronger educational and career pathways through school and into employment, so that all kids face good choices.